Playhouse company premieres family-themed 'The Bench'
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At first it looks like any other rehearsal. Some of the dancers are stretching at the barre. Others are going over steps in the pseudo-privacy of their iPods. A piano tuner happens to be working on the Steinway.
But there it is in the corner -- "The Bench," the focus of Kiesha Lalama-White's family-friendly holiday treat that will premiere this weekend at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. As the saying goes, "Families are like fudge, mostly sweet with a few nuts." But that is only part of the universal appeal that Lalama-White hopes to achieve with her new production.
Assistant stage manager Debra Sherer brings the simple piece of furniture into the center of Studio 4 in Point Park University's spacious new dance complex. It immediately becomes a magnet for the cast members, whether relaxing, checking notes or simply chatting -- a clear-cut case of life imitating art.
In reality, art will be imitating life in the world premiere of "The Bench." Last summer Lalama-White met up with photographer Michael Dickins at Goddard College in Vermont, where the two happened to be pursuing their master's degrees in fine arts. Lalama-White had been toying with a full-length ballet based on family values, traditions and relationships. Dickins had been immersed in a "photo memory project" where friends and family were sending him casual snapshots, some from Facebook, along with their own words about that moment in time.
One talk led to another and one picture to another.
Lalama-White had been reminiscing about her own big Italian family memories and hoped to include composer/cousin David Lalama and his saxophonist brother, Ralph, in a full-length dance work. But when she saw one of Dickins' snapshots, that of an old English couple sitting on a slatted seat in London's Hampton Court Palace, "The Bench" was officially born.
Lalama-White started to create a back story, not only of the couple, but a composite tale of a multicultural family. It would be familiar enough so that audience members might recognize a part of their own lives, be it sibling rivalry, a large holiday dinner or a wedding.
But it would also include artistic elements. So she brought in scenic designer Lewis Folden, who has worked with companies such as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Miami City Ballet, Boston Ballet and Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. As he explains, "They pushed the story along in terms of giving physical hints of the relationships. But that might be a little elusive in terms of abstract choreography."
Lalama-White and Dickins sifted through the snapshots and came up with 10 that fit the warm emotive quality of the story. Dickins then made "painterly" transfer drawings of the photos, as if viewed through a misty haze of memory and re-photographed the paintings.
Folden designed a series of floating screens on which to project Dickins' artworks, along with a collage of words, chosen by Lalama-White, to enhance the images. As for props -- there is, of course, the bench, along with a table, eight chairs and a camera, all simply to suggest a setting. The costumes are stylized and abstracted to take all forms and shapes. Folden is not calling "The Bench" a slide show or even multimedia. Instead his scenic design will lend "atmospheric support with projections and patterns of light. Its only intention is to illuminate the progression of the plot and the content of the dance."
Dickins' photos also achieved a sense of innocence by simply recording the moment. That idea springs to life as the dancers move around "The Bench" and through their choreographed lives. It is apparent that they have already formed a close connection, almost a family within a family, and just in time for the holidays.
First Published December 10, 2009 12:00 am